General Motors is racing toward the all-electric future with wild abandon, and it is not stopping for autographs. The company is banking on high tech lithium-metal batteries to make the next generation of electric vehicles beat gasmobiles on both performance and cost, and it already has a 150,000 mile headstart.
Next-Generation Ultium Electric Vehicle Battery: How Do You Like Me Now?
Global pandemic or not, GM has been on an electric vehicle battery tear all year. Last March it introduced the new Ultium EV battery, which it billed as third-generation technology featuring unique “large-format, pouch-style cells can be stacked vertically or horizontally inside the battery pack,” providing for more flexibility in overall vehicle design.
With the modular approach, GM estimated a range of up to 400 miles, and 0 to 60 times as low as 3 seconds.
That’s pretty good, but apparently not good enough. Last September the company announced progress on its mission to reduce the amount of wiring needed in an EV battery by 90%, which would cut costs while reducing waste and improving efficiency.
Now all of a sudden here comes GM with word that its fourth generation is already in the works.
The company has already put 150,000 miles of testing into a new lithium-metal version of the Ultium architecture, and a new joint R&D agreement with the cutting edge EV battery firm SES (formerly SolidEnergy Systems) will carry the project on to fruition.
“GM’s lithium metal battery with a protected anode will feature a combination of affordability, high performance and energy density,” enthuses GM about itself.
“The expected battery energy density increase could enable higher range in a similarly sized pack or comparable range in a smaller pack. The weight and space savings from smaller battery packs could help with vehicle lightweighting or create more room for additional technology,” they explain.
Solid State Electric Vehicle Battery Not Ready For Close-Up
GM has actually been involved with SES for about six years, since its investment arm GM Ventures tapped the company for a financial assist in 2015. The two have already lined up other innovators on the manufacturing side to thrust the new battery into the electric vehicle market sooner rather than later.
How soon? Well, the two partners have already targeted Woburn, Massachusetts as the site for building a facility to manufacture the prototypes. By 2023 they expect to roll pre-production prototypes off the line.
All that is very interesting, but not as interesting as the story that is probably behind SES’ name change.
As the name SolidEnergy suggests, SES began its electric vehicle battery journey with an eyeball on solid state EV battery technology.
Solid state battery technology has been getting a lot of buzz lately. It offers a pathway for resolving some lingering issues that make conventional lithium-ion batteries more complex and expensive than an electric vehicle battery could be.
The US Department of Energy has been casting a serious eyeball on solid state technology, but in the latest round of funding for next-generation EV technology DOE was all like you’re good, but you’re not that good — yet.
The DOE is still very much interested in solid state EV batteries, but for that particular round of funding it was looking for technology that would enable your electric vehicle to charge up in 15 minutes or less. In the DOE’s assessment, solid state batteries are not quite ready to meet that part of the EV battery challenge.
SES must have seen the writing on the wall.
“Much of the R&D in the Li-Metal space centers on solid-state batteries,” SES explains. “However, there are major obstacles to developing a production-ready solid-state solution: Low energy density, high temperature requirements, expensive materials, and difficult-to-scale manufacturing processes.”
“SES, formerly known as SolidEnergy Systems, used to pursue solid-state Li-Metal technology. However, we have developed a far more practical, better-performing, and complete Li-Metal system than today’s solid-state alternatives,” they add.
Lithium-Metal Is Having A Moment
GM’s new announcement does hedge a bit. The company is adding its own impressive portfolio of Li-Metal R&D to the project, but for now GM is only promising “possible use in future Ultium-based vehicles.”
Nevertheless, the prospects look good, and GM is not the only one rooting for SES. Before GM Ventures dipped in, SES caught the attention of the DOE back in 2012, when it placed second in the agency’s Clean Energy Business Plan competition.
In 2014 the DOE touted its work with clean tech startups and spotlighted SES:
“SolidEnergy Systems, founded out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), recently received a R&D 100 Award for its solid polymer ionic liquid rechargeable lithium battery. SolidEnergy was one of six regional finalists in the inaugural 2012 National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, and the company received technical support from Fraunhofer CSE’s TechBridge – a program funded through the Innovation Ecosystem Initiative.”
It seems that SES’ roots in solid state technology have come back around to dovetail with DOE’s aim of 15-minute charging.
SES states that its latest iteration of lithium-metal technology can hit the standard of 80% of battery range on a 15-minute charge.
“Our system is capable of >400 Wh/kg and >1000 Wh/L, delivering significantly longer driving range to EVs,” they add. “This represents a major boost in energy density compared to today’s Li-ion EV batteries (280 Wh/Kg and 700 Wh/L).”
As for cost, SES notes that its electric vehicle batteries “can be produced at high volume using existing Li-ion infrastructure, significantly lowering production costs.”
The Woman Behind The Electric Vehicle Battery Of The Future
No story about GM would be complete without mentioning CEO and President Mary Barra, especially because March is Women’s History Month and Barra is making history as the first woman to lead a US “Big 3” automaker and pretty much the only woman to hold that kind of position globally, unless we missed somebody.
Barra took the helm in 2014 while GM was still shaking the dust from its ill-fated EV1 venture of the 1990s and struggling to popularize its Volt gas-electric hybrid against an onslaught of right-wing vituperation.
In short order, Barra introduced the all-electric Chevy Bolt as a precursor to announcing GM’s fleetwide all-electric goal. She also ramped up the company’s renewable energy profile to number 11 on the dial by making the company a founding member of the influential Renewable Energy Buyer’s Alliance.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t slow Barra or GM down. In addition to taking multiple steps related to EV battery manufacturing, this past year GM charged forward with new renewable energy initiatives, a massive EV charging partnership, and a new electric delivery van venture that hooks up the company with a major fleet management firm.
On top of all that, as the outbreak took shape last spring, GM pivoted to manufacture ventilators and PPE at scale and collaborated on an industry-wide factory re-opening plan while the Trump administration was still denying the need for a serious, hard core, all-hands-on-deck national COVID-19 response plan (a position the Trump administration stuck to all throughout the crisis).
Fuel Cell Vehicles Are Electric Vehicles, Too
As for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, GM may get the last laugh on that, too. Buried toward the end of the new Ultium announcement is this item:
“GM’s zero-emissions technology will extend to fuel cells and the company announced it will supply its Hydrotec fuel cell power cubes to Navistar for use in its production model fuel cell electric vehicle – the International® RHTMTM Series.”
Fans of fuel cell electric passenger cars might want to hold off on the cheering, at least for now. By “vehicle” they mean vehicles of the sort that Navistar manufactures, which means trucks, buses, and heavy duty off-road vehicles.
Google isn’t giving up much information on that angle as of yet, so stay tuned for more on that later.
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Photo (cropped): New EV battery courtesy of GM [photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors].